“Don’t throw that, it’s food!” my naani (maternal grandmother) screamed. My seven year old self was perched on the bench in the huge open kitchen, helping my grandmother cut beautiful and bright red carrots, some perfect and some wonky, for pickling and I was just about to bin the carrot tops.
This incident occurred in 1995 and that one memory of sitting and slowly connecting with food and my grandmother on a winter afternoon makes me realize how much our food systems have changed. The above memory highlights how well we used to eat and care for our food, the use of carrots in the winter meant we were eating seasonally, the process of pickling to savor the delicious juicy carrots in the summer meant we used to preserve our food and the fact that my grandmother used to make the most delicious carrot leaf chutney with the carrot tops meant we were eating root to shoot.
As I grew older and busier, with school and friends and life- no one had the time to sit down and cut carrots, pickles would still come from my naani’s house and we would relish them and talk about the slower life but do nothing about it.
It was not until I went to Australia to pursue my dreams and I saw a picture of a wonky looking carrot on a billboard- stating an insane amount of food being wasted for not looking perfect- that the memory of my grandmother and her kitchen came rushing back to me. As I researched more and more, I realized the absurdity of the fact that we as a planet have more than enough food to feed everyone yet approximately 800 million people face food insecurity AND we waste 1/3rd of the food produced worldwide.
From then on, I knew I wanted to be deeply involved with food waste as a challenge and play my role well as a chef who could influence better food choices.
The beginning of a sustainable journey
I opened my third restaurant in New Delhi with its cornerstones set as sustainability- And although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was taking away the values that would form the cornerstone of Fig & Maple’s philosophy. When I launched my restaurant in 2016, I was looking to grow as a chef and share my love of local and regional cuisine with New Delhi. Despite establishing a successful café in a quaint Delhi hamlet, I was hungry for change, and I wanted to spread my creative wings.
Eating locally and seasonally is about more than just shopping from the street side vendor next door. In New Delhi, the concept of neighborhood bakeries and other small-scale food suppliers in urban areas doesn’t exist the way it does across the West. So, when we encourage our guests to source locally, what we’re really asking them to do is make the effort to go out of their way.
However, as a chef, I know better. I can control how I source the ingredients I use and how I promote them. And when such abundant biodiversity exists in the country I live in, it truly does eliminate the need for looking outside. While this shouldn’t feel revolutionary, it really is, because we’ve been able to participate in the revival of produce that was tucked away in family stories and culinary history.
Imagine taking a trip to Goa and learning how to use ingredients like Triphal or Bimbli by the very farmers who grow them. Triphal is a delightfully deceptive berry that resembles a Timur pepper but tastes like lemon. Bimbli is a sour fruit that lends a background note for many local curries. It’s also consumed as a chaser right after an urrak shot. Urrak – which is the first distillate while making Feni from fermented cashew apple juice – is incidentally a local Goan drink that has been kept alive through oral tradition. To an extent that Feni today enjoys a ‘Geographical Indicator’ status – India’s equivalent to the French/ Italian appellation system for its foods & beverages.
The discovery of ingredients and values
To discover these ingredients and use Fig & Maple’s kitchen as a showcase platform did more than align with the values I have wanted to abide by as a chef. It also became a great honor to be the conduit for sharing these stories. At every step, we have tried to remain cognizant of not appropriating these ingredients and stories as ours.
One of the values I have always wanted to propagate is the pride for regional Indian ingredients and cuisine, showcased through modernist techniques.
To walk around the kitchen at Fig & Maple is to become acquainted with familiar new-age equipment like blitzes and sous-vide machines and vacuum chambers. And to every onlooker’s delight, the modern equipment lives harmoniously alongside traditional Indian cookware like brass rods, the sil-batta, mortar-pestles, and the chakki for grinding small batches of flour.
By now I had a bank of local farmers I wanted to work with and learn from, I had a sound understanding of local, seasonal, and indigenous produce and hunger and curiosity to learn as much as I could, I understood that we need to highlight forgotten grains and greens alike before they are truly extinct, we needed to understand the biodiversity and the quick loss of it and we needed to understand food as food- not as waste. However, only a certain percentage of the urban consumer is “woke” enough to understand regenerative or sustainability in food.
When you dine out at a chef-led space, you are being influenced by each dish brought to your table. This means flavor is king, people go out to experience new and delicious foods- unfortunately, the PR behind sustainability makes the general consumer feel like it’s going to be boring, tasteless, and banal.
It was time to sharpen my knives and get innovative.
The innovation in the kitchen
When it came to cooking the food we cook, we consciously made sure we went out on a limb into territory that we were completely unfamiliar with. Whether it was the using or borrowing axone from the Northeast or a skyu from Ladakh, or even making our own Kachampuli vinegar because of its limited availability, no ingredient was too wild, too bold, or too strange to be used.
I too started with very very small changes. Instead of using wheat, one of the 4 most used (60 % of the world’s calories come from industrially grown wheat, rice, maize, and potato) I started using ancient grains like amaranth, ragi, nachni, kodo millet to make the same scrumptious dishes- it was an easy replacing never failing formula with of course tweaks to the recipe. I realized quickly how easily my consumers adapted to this.
They had moved to this change with great ease- it was time to make bigger changes.
My signature salad at the restaurant never stays the same- from the greens to the fruit and the mustard dressing- everything changes with every passing season. We started marketing ourselves as a place with a consistently great experience but prided ourselves to be never consistent when it came to the taste of the dish- when we adapt to seasonality and locality we can never ever guarantee your food will taste the same. We just have to accept that.
I have gone off topic again- in the summer we use leaves such as amaranth, kolmi shaak, gongura- showcasing the vast biodiversity of India and in the winter we go down the route of using nastrutium, mustard leaves, radish leaves- we dehydrate figs in the summer, we ask our farmers to send us as many varieties as they grow and we match the flavors with multiple kinds of mustards from across the country and emulsify it with stalks and roots of coriander (yes those flavor bombs which too are usually binned).
The Fig & Maple salad, based on the concept of the restaurant- showcasing biodiversity, seasonality, preservation, and using hyper local ingredients, named after the establishment, presented in the most beautiful crescent- became the bestseller. It made me question everything we had learned so far about consistency.
The food waste challenge
Now came the biggest challenge I had faced so far in kitchens worldwide- food waste– how to change people’s perception behind what’s food and what’s not. What we call Zero Waste in light of a global megatrend is in so many ways our own heritage that we have somehow become far removed from over the course of a few generations. Lives are busier. Families are smaller. The cost of living is higher. And cooking at home is simply not a priority in the face of a lifelong multitasking trapeze act. For better or for worse, we have had to choose convenience, which has led to knowledge being lost or forgotten.
It took me 2 years to train my team to understand the value of food, I was pretty much obsessed- I would go through the bins to make them understand what they are throwing out is food- I spoke to them about how they ate in their hometowns, and each one had a different story of preservation and eating root to shoot. We started working together to create menus highlighting these culinary traditions and using very modern techniques to make them way more approachable to our consumers, now, we proudly run a zero-waste kitchen and bar- with each borrowing skins, peels, and preserves from the other. It was tough- but it’s possible. One of our best-selling bar snacks is called “Skinny Chippin” it’s basically peels of any seasonal veggies converted into chips- imagine had I named it garbage chips? That’s what I mean about the PR behind food waste.
I still haven’t been able to define the cuisine at Fig&Maple, we decided we are a space which is trying to make regional, forgotten, community & tribal food more approachable for the modern consumer. We are trying to introduce you to flavors you haven’t met before and by doing that we are able to highlight the vast biodiversity of the country. We are here to remind you that food is food, not waste. We are not trying to be stand out-ish, we are building a community of farmers and producers and restaurants and chefs all working towards the same goals. The goal of food security.
At the end of the day, all we’re doing is bringing together the myriad colors and forms of nature through the food we grow, the food we create, the food we serve, and the food we eat. No step is too small to create change- and together, we must change.
Join me in my journey of sustainable food habits at www.replate.com10